Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Climate discretionary at bushfires royal commission?

The bushfire royal commission can deal with climate if the royal commissioner, Mr Bernard Teague, feels it is important. This was the response of Mr Kevin Love, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, speaking at an Environment Week event held last night at the University of Melbourne to discuss the Victorian 2008 State of the Environment Report produced by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Dr Ian McPhail.

Mr Love was responding to a question from the audience following the presentations about the omission of climate change and climate policy as areas for specific inquiry in the royal commission terms of reference. Other areas - such as fire warnings and emergency responses - are specifically identified.

Prefacing his remarks with concern that he avoid contempt of the royal commission, Mr Love invoked a catch-all in the terms, allowing the commissioners to investigate 'Any other matters that you deem appropriate in relation to the 2009 Bushfires'.

Yet the omission of climate change and climate policy follows 2007 research by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre commissioned by the Climate Institute linking climate change to a marked increase in bushfire risk, with recent trends matching or exceeding previously projected risk under global warming scenarios.

'The terms of reference are important given they determine what the commission is specifically directed to investigate, and the areas in which it is empowered to make recommendations. The potential contribution of more effective climate policy to international leadership, a stronger global agreement, and therefore long-term bushfire prevention should be rigorously examined in this inquiry,' Darren Lewin-Hill said today. His comments follow his 18 March opinion piece published on ABC Unleashed, making the case for the inquiry to address climate policy.

The wording of the bushfires royal commission website itself underlines why the terms are important, with the following requirement for leave to appear before the commission:

'The notice [to appear] should comprise a brief outline of no more than three pages identifying the term or terms of reference [my emphasis] in which the person or organisation claims an interest, explaining the nature of that interest and giving reasons why they should be given leave to appear before the Royal Commission'.

With no specific terms of reference applicable to climate change and climate policy, their inclusion in the inquiry, and emphasis in the findings, are at the discretion of the commission. Yet the science suggests that the influence of climate change was far from incidental in the Black Saturday fires.

With its preliminary report due in mid-August this year, the royal commission can, if it chooses, acknowledge the scientific evidence and recommend that the influence of climate in the Black Saturday fires be taken into account in framing the position that Australia takes to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

'While the royal commission is not precluded from considering climate under these terms, it is not directed to do so, and climate scientists and advocates must be clear in their calls to ensure that climate change gets the air-time it deserves. As Quentin Dempster, writing on the fires for the ABC, noted, to openly acknowledge the role of climate change in the fires "would require a coordinated national, state and territory policy response". In essence that means a moral imperative to act,' Mr Lewin-Hill said.

In discussing climate change in the presentation about his 2008 State of the Environment Report, Dr McPhail told the audience that you don't believe in climate change as you do in a religion; you are either persuaded by the scientific evidence or you are not. He declared himself persuaded, and called on targets adopted by the Emissions Trading Scheme to be based on that evidence. He said the targets were currently being seen 'in terms of the politically possible'.

Dr McPhail had earlier noted that the climate responds to absolute reductions in emissions, not gains in efficiency. Victoria had 'translated' such gains into increased production, he said.

Apart from Dr McPhail and Mr Love, presenters at the event included Dr Peter Christoff, Vice President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Ms Kelly O'Shanassy, Chief Executive Officer of Environment Victoria. The event was chaired by Mr Rob Gell. The event was organised by the Office for Environmental Programs at the University of Melbourne, with which the author is not associated.

See further coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

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